How many organizational restructurings have you been through? How many have actually improved how the organization worked? Too often in nonprofits and associations, restructuring and reorganizations happen for the wrong reasons.
Reorganizing entire teams to solve one personnel problem
I have witnessed organizations that regularly restructured rather than dealing directly with problematic staff. A staff person was either ‘reorganized’ out of a job or their supervisory responsibility was taken away. Decisions about these changes were all done at the top of the organization. It seemed as though there was little thought given to how these changes would impact the work of those involved. One day people had one boss and a set of colleagues, the next day a different boss and new colleagues
The ripple effect of these changes lingers for weeks if not months. Energy is caught up in discussing the changes. Critiquing them, trying to discern the reasons behind them. For each new staff team they now have to adjust to a new boss, a new set of colleagues. They will have to spend time creating new team norms – whether explicitly or implicitly. Staffers have to learn the new boss’ expectations and communications style. More than just a ripple it is as if the water has been churned up in a pond or a river and you cannot see in front of you. While this churn is going on, actual work of the organization slows. The necessary gets done but any team that was in high gear and really performing before the reorganization is likely disrupted. Teams are knocked back to square one and have to rebuild.
Down with Silos
Another reason organizations restructure is to promote “collaboration” or to be more customer centered. “We are breaking down the silos,” says management. Break them up, the thinking goes, and then people will work across team boundaries more easily. This may work for a short while people get used to the new structure. Yet if other aspects of the organization’s culture do not support cross-team collaboration, it will not last long. Over time the boundaries around the newly formed staff groups will get reestablished and the silos will rebuild.
Finding the “right” structure won’t do it
The key to promoting collaboration is not what the organizational structure is. It does not matter whether staff is organized by functional area, or geography or customer segment. Rather what regular cross-cutting mechanisms exist? Are there regular cross-cutting projects, task forces, committees that bring people together? These could be ongoing or for a specific project. Regardless of the topic, they serve to bring people together in different groupings. In these, people will build relationships and share information.
Creating these cross-cutting groups – especially a series of short term projects that provide the opportunity for more people to be involved – will do much more than yet another reorganization for promoting organizational collaboration. Regular retreats can also help cultivate cross-cutting relationships.
So consider restructuring with caution. Ask why you doing this and will it achieve what you are aiming for? Consider the ripple effects.
Too many people – especially women – suffer from perfectionism. While it used to be that this was the perfect “weakness” to admit in a job interview, perfectionism gets in the way of performance rather than enhancing it. Perfectionists live in fear of mistakes. Gripped in this fear, they struggle with committing to a course of action, to get started, or to finish a project.
Try and make mistakes
I was talking to someone who was in the throws of perfectionism. I joked – why not try and make mistakes? Set that as your goal. Make as many mistakes as possible today. I was joking but why not give it a try. You can’t learn without making mistakes so rather than avoid them why not try to have them? This seems very counterintuitive yet if you were to approach your day that way I am guessing you would jump into action – because how else would you up your mistake ante? Also I would guess that you are unlikely to make a lot of mistakes, but making that goal might make them seem a little less scary.
What’s the “right” place to start?
Another person was trying to figure out the “right” way to start doing more strategic work with her board. There were lots of reasons that the board was in an operational mode. Crises in the past had forced it to shift its focus to the day-to-day. With the crisis past it had not yet shifted gears. There were lots of possible ways to get started. But she was paralyzed with looking for the “right” one – the strategic one. Certainly there is value in being strategic for greater impact and efficiency. But searching for the perfect strategic action can also have the impact of not taking any action. My feedback to her – pick one and start as an experiment. See how it goes. It might not be the “right” one and if not, adjust and try something new.
Planning and experimenting
I love planning and love working with organizations to help them think through their future direction to help them be more strategic. At the same time, organizations trip themselves up when they fall into the trap of thinking that they can plan out everything in detail at the outset. You just do not know what of your plans will be a ‘mistake’ or a learning opportunity. The ‘mistake’ provides you the opportunity to shift gears and try something new. Try thinking of your plan as a series of experiments. This way you can hold the plan more lightly and be more open to learning. Identify a couple big goals to set your own or your organization’s direction. Plan in more detail for the first year of implementation, especially first actions. Then get started.
Need help thinking about how to get started? Inquire about a complementary coaching session.
If you are like me, the end of the year includes some time to look back and see what you have accomplished. You likely set some goals at the beginning of the year. How much progress did you make them? And further and probably more important– what did you learn from the experience? I use four tools to help me prioritize taking the time to reflect on what I have learned from my experiences.
At the end of each day, I take a few minutes to consider the day and write down what I accomplished – my daily wins. Some days those wins are big – and sometimes they are really small – like cleaning out my email! But even after a day that did not feel super productive I can always come up with items to note that I got done. It helps me see the progress I am making. One small step after another – moving forward.
First I take 30-45 minutes at the end of each week to do a weekly reflection. My daily wins journal helps remind me what I did over the course of the week. The weekly reflection is centered around seven topics and I answer the same questions each week. I focus on vision, awareness, needs, feedback, core skills, action and results. I begin each reflection by looking at the intentions I set for the week and think about how things went. Did it go as I imagined? What was different and why? Often times I am setting intentions around how I will feel during a piece of work – confident in a presentation or centered while facilitating a session. You can download my weekly reflection worksheet here.
At the half-year mark, I take a few hours to review my weekly reflection notebook. What happened? What were the ups and the downs? What patterns do I notice over the course of months? What did I take away from the experience? I use this worksheet to capture my notes as I review my weekly entries.
Yearly professional learning plan
To take this six-month review one step further I create a professional learning plan for the year. What do I want to learn over this coming year? I start by taking stock of where I am. What have I learned this past year? What does my current situation require of me? What do I currently contribute to my field?
Then I think about where I want to be in a year. What is the next year going to bring for me? What challenges am I facing? What skills and knowledge do I need to do my job more effectively? Will an upcoming project push me in a new direction? What does the field demand from a successful professional? When I look back on this coming year, what do I want to have achieved?
How will I learn the skills I am aiming for? This may include formal professional development opportunities – yet it likely also includes taking advantage of informal learning. By setting intentions about what I want to learn in the next year, I am ready when opportunity presents itself. Here is a template for creating your own professional learning plan.
For example, a couple years ago I wanted to learn how to sketchnote. I bought a book, read about it, watched some videos. Now when I attend conferences, I go with a sketchbook and a couple colors of pens and I sketchnote each session I attend. My notes may not be super pretty or incredibly well illustrated but they help me remember the session. – They are also a great conversation starter for those at my table!
Give yourself the gift of reflection
In our go-go culture, it can be difficult to find the time to reflect when there are so many urgent things going on in the present. Yet the benefits are great when you take some time to capture your learning as you go. Make an investment in yourself by giving a broader view at the six month and end of year point. Give yourself the gift of some reflective time to support your learning!
At the American Society for Association Executive (ASAE)’s At Work conference in early October, I facilitated a session on cultivating a healthy organizational culture. When asked what they associated with the term organizational culture, participants had lots of responses. Values, communications, hierarchy and energy were mentioned most frequently. The word cloud to the left summarizes the variety of responses.
Organizational culture, as defined by Edgar Schein, is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”
While there are visible parts of culture such as dress code, the organization’s mission, work environment, policies and procedures and strategic statements, most of culture in implicit and not readily visible. It has to be learned. This could be through story and conversation or more powerfully by making mistakes that break unspoken rules and assumptions.
One organizational culture model
Human Synergistics International’s Organizational Culture inventory is a commonly used organizational assessment that uncovers an organization’s cultural style. They group cultures in three styles, including constructive, passive/defensive and aggressive/defensive. A constructive culture, in their model, supports achievement, self-actualization and encourages people within the organization to work cooperatively with each other. A passive/defensive culture encourages people to follow the rules, values dependability, solutions tend to be conventional and conflict is avoided. An aggressive/defensive style values people who vie for status and influence by challenging each other, by taking charge and compete with each other. This style also tends to celebrate perfectionism and long hours. Of these three styles, the constructive style (not surprising considering its name!) is the healthiest culture and is most closely correlated with deeper employee engagement and better organizational results.
What do healthy organizations do differently?
Having used this assessment with many of her nonprofit clients, Dr. Elizabeth Scott researched what nonprofit organizations that have a healthy culture do differently than their peers with less healthy organizational cultures. She found that these organizations take distinctive action in two major areas – people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some specific actions that they take include infusing fun into their work, focusing on self-care and work-life balance and empowering staff to carry out the mission on their own. In terms of their human resources practices, they see human resources staff as a partner, they engage in careful hiring, onboarding as well as off boarding when needed. They provide ongoing training and regular feedback and place an emphasis on teamwork.
Cultivating a healthy culture
I asked participants in the session what their organization was doing in the areas of people practices and employee wellbeing and empowerment. Some current steps in people practices that people mentioned include new employee welcome and mentoring program, a new idea generation group that meet regularly, every other Friday off, employee engagement surveys and committees, staff retreats and telecommuting options. For encouraging employee well being, people mentioned fun committees, culture committees, book groups, gym reimbursement, movie day and other wellness initiatives.
Intention & leadership support
What I appreciate about most of these ideas is that for the most part they are not costly. What they require is intention and support from leadership. Support for people to take the time to come together and plan fun activities as well as the time and permission within the culture for people to participate.
That permission is key. I have seen organization that have tried some of these things – putting a foosball table and other board games in the lunch room for example. Yet the culture valued quiet and the CEO was known to publically question people when they took a break. So very few people used the foosball table or the games because it went against both unspoken and spoken ‘rules” within the culture. Other examples include organizations that have elaborate telecommuting policies or flexible leave policies that few take advantage of because face time and being seen in the office is highly valued.
What of these ideas could your organization try? And if you do – how will you make sure people know they really have permission to engage! Does your organization’s culture need some attention? Inquire about a coaching call.
I was at a three-day training last week for the Standards of Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for Nonprofit Sector. One of our trainers, Justin Pollock of Orgforward helped us dig into both the why and the how of each of the major areas of the code.
He posed two provocative questions set up our conversations – When XYZ is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? And for people to achieve these results, what are the favorable conditions that need to be in place?
Getting caught up in the "thing"
Too often organizations and the consultants that support them get too caught up in doing the “thing” – whether that is strategic planning, clarifying the mission and vision or program evaluation – without stepping back and thinking what they are hoping to get from this work – or what they are hoping will be different.
By asking “when strategy and mission is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? What does it enable staff, board and volunteers to be able to do better? What are the benefits?” first, you get at the hopes, aspirations and motivations for the strategy or mission work. And further by asking, “what do they need to know, have access to, be able to do and believe?” – in other words – identifying the favorable conditions for making progress in this area.
Putting it into action
What does this look like in practice? With strategic planning for example – what will be different when you engage in strategic planning? Too often people complain about an involved process that just resulted in a plan that sat on a shelf. When does strategic planning have real benefits for the organization? This could be in terms of the process itself – having time and space to dig into why the organization does what it does. This could uncover misalignment between stakeholders – whether board, staff, clients – on expectations. By uncovering these, they can then be worked through to bring people closer together in their understanding of the organization’s goals. When done well, the process helps the organization focus its resources, letting go of activity that is no longer serving the mission. It can serve to enable the organization to work on reducing the “friction” and “static” within the organization.
What are the favorable conditions to make these positive results possible? Favorable conditions would include having an inclusive and participatory process. If people feel like they are simply being told what the goals and priorities are by a few people within the organization, they may or may not be ‘bought in’ to the desired outcomes. Even if they are included in the process from the outset unless they feel like they can speak openly and honestly, they will just be going through the motions. A second condition that supports success is to have a clear pathway to translate large organizational level goals into team work plans and individual goals for the year. This will facilitate action.
Uncovering the why and the how
So the next time you launch into a large project, takes some time to consider these two questions – when we are successful with our project, what will it make possible for people in the organization? – to get clear on the “why” behind your work. Then consider “what are the conditions required to make our work go well?” – to think about the “how” of your project and set yourself up for success.
Need help with this. Inquire about a coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.